Lighten up

Jeremy Myerson explains how offices have switched on to lighting opportunities and Katy Greaves sees how the Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing is shaping up

It looks like something straight out of an early Stanley Kubrick movie. Eyes wide open, not Eyes Wide Shut. At a remote and heavily guarded computer centre in Monterey, Mexico, a visitor negotiates a special security lock before entering the building. A heavy stainless steel door slides back to usher him into a small, enclosed space lit only by blue indirect lighting in the perforations of the door. Red globes recessed into the ceiling then give the impression of “scanning” the visitor.

When the sliding door is completely closed, a second set of doors opens to reveal the computer centre. This environment expresses the idea of an “ice house” climate control: blue etched glass lenses are set in a raised floor, covered with patterned stainless steel. Four etched glass cut-outs reveal thousands of cables acting as the nerves of the computer centre.

The control desk overlooks the whole operation from a raised platform, separated only by a full-height glass screen. Staff here work below a highly translucent textile ceiling which provides warm, indirect light. The end wall opposite the control desk presents a white tensioned sail suspended from the building’s concrete slab, on which presentations can be projected.

This scenario might sound like pure science fiction, but rest assured this computer centre is no Dr Strangelove film set. It is a commercial workplace designed for Mexican cement producer Cemex by UK architects Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners. Lighting consultant Jonathan Speirs and Associates was responsible for designing two different lighting scenarios for the project – one for everyday use and one for special VIP visits, as described above.

The Cemex computer centre is an unusually creative response to practical needs which focuses on a high degree of security and climate control. Its lighting plays both a functional and a symbolic role. But, internationally, it is not by any means an isolated case. A new book out this autumn entitled The Creative Office reveals growing evidence that a new generation of offices are emerging which are much more sensitive to light and colour, spectacle and scenario than ever before.

Offices used to be synonymous with fluorescent strip lighting. Even technological innovation in recent years was confined to putting louvres and other filter controls on fluorescent fittings and maybe supplementing general illumination with task lighting on the desk, the intermittent wall washer or the odd decorative uplighter in reception.

But as organisations seek to develop more collaborative and cognitive workstyles, in which the office becomes less of a workhouse and more of a forum for dynamic social interaction, lighting design skills have started to move beyond the electrical-mechanical into the realms of the creative.

As a design practice, Nicholas Grimshaw has not only used coloured light to reinvent the computer centre in Mexico. Closer to home, for the Orange communication network in Darlington, it tackled that most daunting of workplace types – the call centre. The Orange scheme makes use of giant, elegant light sails to solve the problem of glare on operator’s screens.

Another UK design group, Sedley Place, has used innovation in light to create personalised work settings for ad agency staff at Lowe and Partners in New York, which is part of the Interpublic Group. Sedley Place’s Art Deco-tinged scheme on five floors of the WR Grace Building on Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue enhances a predominantly cellular sequence of offices with a custom modular lighting system in each private space, which can be individually adjusted into new positions. Features in common areas, such as light-emitting TV screens set in limestone floors and a back-lit stained glass work of art by Brain Clark in the stairwell further enrich the working environment.

The US has traditionally set the pace in lighting design. So it should be no surprise that it can boast many workplace schemes which play creatively with ideas of light, projection and immateriality. In Chicago, for example, design group Valerio Dewalt Train and Associates has created a new office for the WMA firm of engineers which literally ambushes a rational office plan with a crazy crossfire of diagonally juxtaposed lighting. A medley of specially-adapted indirect fittings and custom-fabricated wall-mounted light boxes shines light off suspended stainless steel partitions and exposed services to animate the project’s loft-height space, creating a communal and interactive environment. As designer Joe Valerio admits: “The design goes nutty in the third dimension.”

Organisations and architects in Continental Europe are also waking up to the artistic potential of light, colour and reflection to make offices more creative, comfortable and productive. In Tilburg in The Netherlands, a large new office scheme for insurance company Interpolis attaches a 20-floor tower for teamworking to a low-rise annexe with an expansive entrance hall. The tower sounds like a recipe for monotony until you venture inside: each floor is prefaced by a café styled on a different world city and the flexible, open plan workspace, graced by ceiling suspended light discs and tree-like light sculptures, softens the environment.

In London, you can see excellent examples of innovative lighting in offices – from Ben Kelly’s giant telegraph pole lights in the Design Council’s Covent Garden headquarters, which make dramatic use of the main floor’s 4.2m floor-to-ceiling height, to Buschow Henley’s soft, wood-framed “light cloister” at Prospect Pictures. This is a calming GRP-clad “colour wall” of red, green and blue light that shields the management offices of a film production company from the busy street.

No longer is office lighting simply a matter of mathematical calculation for electrical engineers. It has become a key artistic element in orchestrating the social dynamics of office space, especially as more and more work is done outside the traditional office environment and people now need good reasons to be there.

As a creator of mood and ambience, creative lighting is set for even wider application in the next generation of workplaces – as the technological palette designers have at their disposal becomes more sophisticated than ever before.

Jeremy Myerson is the co-author with Philip Ross of The Creative Office published by Laurence King, priced £45

{storyLink (“DW199910150058″,”Wellcome Wing”)} Creating impact through the lighting scheme as well as the architecture was the aim of the Wellcome Wing’s designers

Latest articles